Absolutely everyone has noticed the rash of dystopian YA novels kicking around the bookstore these days. I was recently in the wonderland that is Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, and their YA room had a great "I'm Dystopian!" display. Author Philip Reeve wrote about the phenomenon in this month's School Library Journal. And you can't escape the promotions for the upcoming movie version of The Hunger Games. I'm guilty of being quietly obsessed with the genre ever since I started teaching Lois Lowry's classic The Giver twenty or so years ago.
Well, in the past few years, I've read: The Hunger Games series, The Maze Runner series, the Chaos Walking series, the Gone series, the Uglies series, Incarceron, Divergent, Matched, Delerium, Enclave, Shipbreaker, The Roar, etc., etc., etc. Lots and lots of 'em. Some of them are great (Shipbreaker, Delerium, Chaos Walking series); some are very good (Maze Runner, Uglies, Gone, Incarceron). All of them are addictively readable. For some reason I cannot fathom, we are fascinated with our own inevitable, horrific future. What we know for sure: Earth will suffer many cataclysmic disasters which will (probably) be our fault; the new government of what is left of the U.S. will be oppressive and totalitarian; the poor will be really poor and the rich will be really rich. And one last thing: Some plucky teenager with mad fighting and survival skills will soon see it all for what it is and will fight back.
So what is different about Marie Lu's Legend, which will be published later this year and has already been optioned for the screen? Truthfully, not much. When I received the galley of Legend and read the back cover, I actually groaned. Aloud, not inwardly. My obsession was in danger of spilling over into compulsion: Yet another dystopian novel I must read. No, really, I just can't do it again. Please make it stop!
Still, I cracked Legend open and began. Original it ain't, but, I gotta tell you, I liked it. I liked it a lot. Despite being able to predict almost everything that was going to happen, I couldn't put Legend down. And if it's done right, it could make an awesome film. At the very least, it would be a great video game.
June is a war-ready prodigy in the future Republic of America, a perfect soldier-to-be, who grew up in the golden light of Los Angeles's richest district. Day is a prodigy of another kind. He is from one of the city's poorest districts, and he's also the country's most wanted terrorist/criminal. June and Day could not have come from more contrasting origins, but their worlds are about to collide in a big way.
When Day's family is quarantined because of a breakout of the newest strain of plague to run through the L.A. slum areas, he needs to steal some plague cure quick. June's brother Matias, who seems to be the ultimate Republic soldier, is murdered at the hospital on the night that Day tries to swipe a few vials of the cure. Now, Day is the number-one suspect in the crime, and June is out to exact her revenge.
Soon, however, June and Day cross paths in a most unlikely way. An uneasy alliance, even a touch of romance develops, and June and Day start to uncover some horrifying truths about the Republic. Everyone, it seems, is a pawn in the Republic's game, from the poor dying of plague each season to the most loyal soldiers defending the land. Both June and Day have trust issues, and it's easy to see why considering the ever-shifting circumstances of their lives. They are opposite sides of the same coin, simultaneously the user and the used, in a society that believes they're both expendable.
Legend is terrifically violent. It's remarkable that Day lives through half of the torture and injury he endures. And the brutally creepy people surrounding June will make your skin crawl. Legend walks a very thin line between making its point and being gratuitous. But Day is so likable, somehow, a tough but essentially vulnerable boy who just wants to save his family, that the reader forgives the over-the-top moments of gore just to cheer for the upstart hero. June's loyalties are more wavering, so we're not sure what to make of her. Ultimately, she is also a victim of the government's cruelty, but you don't start to root for her until the very end of the book.
Legend is narrated by June and Day in alternating chapters. It's a well-managed device that gives the reader a look into what each is thinking without any encroaching sentimentality. Lu offers a few well-timed plot twists and an exciting climax that will leave the reader both sorry and satisfied. I figure there's a sequel around the corner, too. Which I will most likely read in one sitting, on the day of its release. Sad, aren't I?